14 September, 2016

Another Look at Common Grace—Chapter Seven: "Restraint of Sin and General Revelation"

Prof. Herman C. Hanko


In discussing that aspect of common grace which has to do with the restraint of sin, we concentrated, in our last article, on the fact that an inward restraint of sin by the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the unconverted necessarily implies a moral change in man’s nature. This change in man’s nature involves an improvement of the nature which leaves an unconverted man in a state other than one of total depravity. The Holy Spirit so works that the natural and unconverted man is no longer totally depraved, though he remains unconverted. This, as we noticed, is a denial of the biblical and confessional doctrine of total depravity.

Other elements of the doctrine of the restraint of sin have also been discussed by various theologians in the course of their defense of common grace. One of the chief of these is the relationship between general revelation and common grace. It is to this aspect of the doctrine that we turn in this article.

The Teaching

The whole concept of general revelation has, through the years, become closely associated with common grace.

In his work “Common Grace,” Herman Bavinck refers to this relationship when he claims that common grace is important because it prepares the way in the whole creation and in the human race for special grace by which the whole cosmos is saved.1

More clearly, Bavinck speaks of this relationship in his book Our Reasonable Faith. In speaking of general and special revelation, he writes:

Grace is the content of both revelations, common in the first, special in the second, but in such a way that the one is indispensable for the other.

It is common grace which makes special grace possible, prepares the way for it, and later supports it; and special grace, in its turn, leads common grace up to its own level and puts it into its service.2

Louis Berkhof, in a lengthy discussion of common grace, includes general revelation as a means by which common grace operates. Appealing to Romans 2:14, 15, Berkhof speaks of the fact that general revelation gives to the unregenerate many gifts, including the knowledge of God, which gifts are tokens of God’s grace to the reprobate.3

A. A. Hodge connects general revelation and the restraint of sin when he writes:

"Common grace" is the restraining and persuading influences of the Holy Spirit acting only through the truth revealed in the gospel, or through the natural light of reason and of conscience, heightening the natural moral effect of such truth upon the understanding, conscience and heart. It involves no change of heart, but simply an enhancement of the natural powers of the truth, a restraint of the evil passions, and an increase of the natural emotions in view of sin, duty, and self-interest.4

No one has devoted more time to this relationship than William Masselink, who wrote an entire book to demonstrate the close connection between general revelation and common grace. In this book, entitled General Revelation and Common Grace, he notes that the two cannot be identified because they differ in origin, purpose, and how we acquire knowledge of them. But he then goes on to say:

They are related, however, because in common grace God uses the truths of general revelation to restrain sin. The two results of general revelation arc: God-consciousness and moral consciousness. By means of these two results, through God’s common grace, sin is curbed in the natural man.5

Masselink rather strangely claims that Reformed theology all but went into eclipse for 200 years after the Reformation because “The great fact of the Christian’s relation to the world was neglected.” Kuyper and Hodge are to be thanked for reviving this crucial element in Reformation theology.6

Donald Macleod, in his crassly heretical book and vicious attack on those who deny common grace, includes God’s general revelation as one of the instruments of the restraint of sin, a restraint which enables man to perform civil good.7

It is clear from these quotations, and their number could be multiplied, that general revelation assumes an important role in the whole doctrine of common grace, and that it is associated with that element of common grace which has to do with the restraint of sin.

The Relation Between the Two

As we have noticed before in our discussions of common grace, it is not so easy to define specifically what the defenders of common grace mean by their assertions. They tend to speak in rather general and vague ways which give some very general notions of their ideas; but when one asks specific questions, the answers are not all that easy to find.

The same is true of our present subject. What precisely do the proponents of common grace mean when they speak of a relation between general revelation and common grace, or general revelation and the restraint of sin? The answers are not easy to find, and one must take guesses as to what they have in mind.

It seems, however, that the general idea is this.

God reveals Himself in two ways to men. He reveals Himself in Scripture and He reveals Himself in creation and history. The former is God’s revelation in Jesus Christ; the latter is His revelation in the works of His hands in which Christ is not made known. The former is God’s speech through the gospel which results in the salvation of the elect; the latter is His speech to all men.

Nevertheless, both are grace. The former is God’s gracious speech in the overtures of the gospel; the latter is God’s gracious speech to all. The former is God’s gracious speech through Jesus Christ; the latter is the revelation of His love and kindness towards everyone. The former is the revelation of God’s special grace; the latter is the revelation of His common grace.

We might note here, in passing, that even at this point there is some confusion. While it is generally admitted that the grace revealed in general revelation is general, there is no consensus on the question of whether general revelation is grace to reprobate and elect alike. Some maintain that general revelation is grace only to the reprobate; others maintain that it is grace to reprobate and elect alike.

But even more confusing is God’s revelation in Scripture. While all agree that the revelation of God in Scripture is not revelation to all men (for all do not hear the gospel in the history of mankind), nevertheless, the defenders of common grace maintain that special revelation, i.e., the revelation of God through Scripture and the preaching of the gospel, is shown to reprobate as well as elect, for the preaching of the gospel expresses God’s desire to save all men and is, therefore, grace to reprobate as well as elect. This is the point of connection between common grace and the well-meant gospel offer.

But the question of the well-meant gospel offer is not our concern in these articles.

The question remains, however: How is general revelation grace, be it but common grace?

The primary texts which are quoted in this connection are Romans 1:18-25, particularly the expression:

Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse;

and Romans 2:14, 15:

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.

The argument goes like this. In creation God reveals “His eternal power and Godhead” and writes “the work of the law” in the hearts of all men, so that the consciences of all men bear witness to the truth. Thus all men possess the knowledge of God and of God’s law. This knowledge of God and of His law is graciously given. Without such revelation those outside the preaching of the gospel would not even know God, nor would they possess any knowledge of His law. They would be totally ignorant of God and of His will. They would live like beasts without any consciousness of God or His holy will. But God graciously gives them, through creation, such a knowledge that they still may know Him and what He has willed for them.

This knowledge of God, though not saving knowledge in Jesus Christ, is the means God uses to restrain sin in them. Knowing something of God, they retain some knowledge of the truth. Knowing the law of God, they retain some regard for virtue and good order in society—as the Canons of Dort express it in III/IV, 4. And this knowledge which they possess is God’s grace to them. It is grace for different reasons. 1) It is grace because it is an act of grace that such knowledge is given at all. 2) It is grace because this knowledge, though not saving knowledge, gives them a possession which is a good gift of God. 3) It is grace because by means of this knowledge they are restrained in their sin, and are, in fact, enabled to do some good. Hence, general revelation is grace.

Although not specifically mentioned by the proponents of common grace, it seems also as if another question enters the discussion at this point. It appears as if the defenders of common grace also want to connect this grace of God in general revelation with the image of God in man. Our readers will recall how we pointed out in an earlier article that it is often maintained by the defenders of common grace that, apart from common grace, man would have become a beast after the fall. It is common grace that preserves man as man. And because he is still man, he still bears God’s image, though in a corrupted way. And this image, by which man knows God and knows the difference between right and wrong, is preserved in man through the common grace of general revelation.

And so we face three questions, each of which we shall have to examine. 1) What is general revelation? 2) Is this so-called general revelation grace towards the reprobate? 3) Is man still an image-bearer of God?

What is General Revelation?

That God makes Himself known to all men through creation8 is surely the teaching of Scripture, especially Romans 1:18ff. Whether it is proper to call this manifestation of God through the things that are made by the term revelation is quite another question.

As far as the term itself is concerned, Scripture utilizes the term in a very precise way.

The Greek term itself, ἀποκαλύπτω (apokalýpto) in its verb form and ἀποκάλυψις (apokálupsis) in its noun form, has a very precise meaning. It means, “to uncover that which is hidden.” The figure is sometimes used of the unveiling of a painting or the public unveiling of a new piece of sculpture by an artist. A large crowd may be gathered for the occasion, and at the proper time a work of art, hitherto hidden under a large sheet, is withdrawn for all to see.

Now it is clear already from the term itself that such “revelation” or unveiling implies the ability on the part of the audience to see what is unveiled. If among the throng there are fifty blind people, it is obvious that, as far as the unveiling is concerned, there is no “revelation” of the work of art to these blind folk. The work of art may be unveiled, but the blind are unable to see it.

So it is when Scripture uses this term in connection with God’s revelation of Himself or in connection with God’s revelation of Jesus Christ or the work of salvation which He has performed through Christ. God uncovers the greatness of His glory and unveils the riches of His grace in Jesus Christ. But there is no real revelation if there are blind people present.

And Scripture very sharply makes this distinction. It does so on the grounds that the fall of man which resulted in the total depravity of the human race makes it spiritually impossible for the totally depraved sinner to “see” the revelation of God or the truth of the gospel.

Jesus makes this very clear when He explains to His disciples why He speaks in parables (Matt. 13:11-16). While the wicked must hear the parables because “they seeing see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand,” to the disciples “is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven,” while “to them it is not given.” And the disciples know because, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.”

God’s work of revelation, therefore, implies the subjective spiritual work of grace in the hearts of the elect by means of which they are given the spiritual ability to see that revelation. They are blind as the others by nature. But when revelation takes place, this very work of revelation includes the subjective and inner work of the Holy Spirit giving eyes to see and ears to hear. This inner and enlightening work of the Holy Spirit is always implied in Scripture’s use of the term.

The term “revelation,” therefore, includes in it various ideas according to Scripture.

In the first place, “revelation” is always particular. Whenever Scripture speaks of God’s revelation of Himself, or of His revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, or of His revelation of the mysteries of salvation accomplished in Jesus Christ, this is always particular and never general. It is always a work of God performed for His elect people and never embraces the reprobate.

This is sharply set forth in many passages of Scripture. In Matthew 11:25-27 we read:

At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.9

In the second place, because the term is used in a particular sense, the term always carries with it the connotation of grace. Revelation is always a work of grace—not general or common grace, but particular grace. Revelation is a part of the work of salvation in Jesus Christ. It is not incorrect or an exaggeration to say that the Bible never once speaks of general revelation.

Apparently the defenders of common grace are aware of this, for they themselves always connect revelation with grace. They understand that revelation and grace do indeed always belong together. That is, when general revelation is spoken of, it is always spoken of in the context of grace. The trouble is that, because they maintain that revelation itself is general, they wrongly conclude that grace also is general. But the point is that grace can never be separated from revelation.

In the third place, because revelation includes the subjective work of God by means of which a man, spiritually blind by nature, is enabled to see what God has revealed, revelation is ascribed to the work of God the Holy Spirit. This is true, e.g., in I Corinthians 2:10: “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.” And we must not forget that this is in contrast with what Paul says in verse 14 of the same chapter: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

This same emphasis is clearly found in Ephesians 1:17, 18: “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.”10

In every use of the word in Scripture, revelation is connected to God’s gracious work of salvation for the elect. It is not used in connection with the wicked. There is no such thing in Scripture as general revelation in the sense in which it is spoken of in connection with common grace.

Romans 1:18-25

The question may be asked at this point: What about Romans 1:18ff.?

Dr. Abraham Kuyper, as well as others, appealed to this passage in support of the doctrine of the inward restraint of sin by the work of the Holy Spirit. Those who hold to this position appealed especially to the expressions “Wherefore God also gave them up…” (v. 24) and “For this cause God gave them up…” (v. 26). They argue that if God gave these idolaters up, He had, prior to giving them up, restrained them.

Now, on the surface, this will not do. In the first place. God’s act of giving up the wicked to their vile affections does not imply that, prior to giving them up, God had indeed restrained them. Such a conclusion is invalid on the very face of it. But, in the second place, if indeed God had restrained them prior to giving them up, surely anyone can see that the text makes no mention of the fact that such restraint was accomplished by an inward work of the Holy Spirit in the heart.11

But however that may be, the text makes no mention whatsoever of any kind of grace of God towards these wicked; nor does it speak of any kind of revelation of God in grace.

The text does use the word “reveal”: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven...” (v. 18). But notice, this is not the revelation of grace and kindness, but of wrath. And we ought to take note of the fact that this statement in verse 18 is really the theme of the entire passage which ends with the end of the chapter. The Holy Spirit is talking about the revelation of the wrath of God from heaven in the entire section.

The reason why God’s wrath is revealed from heaven upon these ungodly is said to be that “they hold the truth in unrighteousness.” The word “hold” is, in the Greek, κατέχω (katechó), which means literally, “to have down” and can be translated, “suppress, hold under.”

The idea is then that these wicked people suppress or hold under the truth. They deny it. They refuse to let it enter their consciousness. They do all in their power to keep it from being taught and believed.

Now it ought to be clear that if the wicked suppress the truth, they know that truth. One cannot suppress what he does not know.12 And the apostle goes on to explain how it is that they know this truth.

One must remember that Paul is speaking here of the heathen who live outside the sphere of the preaching of the gospel. He is talking about the people of the Roman Empire who in his day were characterized by all the sins which the chapter goes on to describe in such vivid detail. And in speaking of those outside the preaching of the gospel, he is speaking of all in heathendom from his day to the present who have not the preaching of the gospel.

How is it that these who have never heard the gospel nevertheless know the truth?

The answer is very clear.

We ought to note at the outset that in explaining this idea the apostle does not use the word “reveal.” The wicked do not know the truth by revelation in the biblical sense of that term. The apostle uses here the word “manifest”: “That which may be known of God is manifest in them.” The Greek has here φανερόν ἐστιν (phaneron estin). The word φανερόν (phaneron) is the adjective of the verb φανερόω (phaneróō). It is clear, therefore, that the Scriptures make a distinction between revelation and manifestation, and that Romans 1 is not referring to the former, but to the latter.13

However that may be, God does manifest Himself outside Scripture and Christ to those who have no knowledge of Scripture. Concerning that manifestation of God, the text in Romans 1 teaches the following:

1) This manifestation of God to those outside the sphere of revelation is the means by which all men without exception know the truth, the truth which they suppress in unrighteousness.

2) The truth is manifest in the wicked because God shows it to them (v. 19). That is, God Himself is determined to show Himself to the wicked so that they may truly know His truth.

3) This manifestation is “from the creation” and is understood by the wicked “through the things that are made.” That is, the creation itself, created by God, is the means by which God shows Himself to the wicked outside the gospel. It is evident in the creation that God is the Creator and that He has formed all things and still upholds all things by the Word of His power.14 The trees and flowers, rain and sunshine, rivers and oceans, monkeys and ants—all manifest God as the Creator.

4) What is manifested by God in His works in creation is “his eternal power and Godhead” (v. 20). Not all that may be known of God is clearly shown in creation. Basically two things are shown: God’s eternal power and His Godhead. If one thinks about it, what Scripture has in mind here is this: In creation is manifested the great truth that God alone is God and that He alone must be served and worshiped. These fundamental truths are known to everyone. The lowliest pagan, the most uncivilized heathen, the natives in the darkest jungles of remote ocean islands—all know, through the things that are made, that God is God and that He alone is to be worshiped and served. No one can escape that knowledge. God Himself sees to it that that is known by every person alive.

This does not include, of course, the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. It might be well at this point to make a slight digression. The knowledge of God through Jesus Christ is the only knowledge of God by which men can be saved. The wicked who have a certain knowledge of God do not have such knowledge as will save them. There is only one name under heaven given among men whereby we can be saved, and that is the name of God in Christ. Never can salvation come through God’s manifestation in creation.

It has been argued that this is cruel and unfair since God does not give pagan man sufficient knowledge to be saved. And this objection seems to be strengthened by the fact that the apostle adds: “So that they may be without excuse.” The question then is: How can they be without excuse if they have insufficient knowledge to be saved? But it must be remembered that fallen man was created by God good and upright, able in all things to know and love God. The fact that this is no longer possible and that He needs knowledge in Christ to be saved does not detract from his responsibility. That man fell is his fault, not God’s. That pagan man can never be saved with the knowledge that he possesses is not injustice on God’s part, but is the result of man’s own consummate folly.15

5) This truth the wicked suppress. They know it. They cannot deny it. They are confronted with it. But in their sin they will have none of it. They hate it because they hate God. They not only make every effort to deny it, but they also suppress it in their own consciousness.

6) Yet God reveals all His power and Godhead to them “so that they may be without excuse.” In the Greek, this appears as a purpose clause. It is a definition of God’s purpose in making Himself known to all men. Very clearly this means that God has His own sovereign purpose in making Himself known. In the judgment day, no one in all the world will be able to say that the reason why he did not worship and serve God was because he was ignorant of Him. God will tell him: You knew. You knew Me. I told you of Myself. You have no excuse. When I now send you to everlasting hell, I do so justly. And every wicked man will have to admit, before the great white throne of Christ, that indeed that is true.

7) The text goes on to say that this suppression of the truth is the explanation for their idolatry. Twice over the apostle makes this clear. In verse 21 he says: “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” And in verses 22, 23 he adds: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.” And once more, in verse 25 the apostle says, “Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than16 the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.”

This is very clear language, and its repetition emphasizes how important it is. When the pagans worship idols of every sort, this idol worship is not ignorance. So often it is presented as such. The wicked, so it is said, worship idols because they do not know any better. They have not the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so they do not know that they must worship God, nor do they know how they can do this. Sometimes it is even added that the wicked long to worship the true God, but they do not know how to do this, and so they worship idols as an expression of their desire to worship God. Such notions are flatly contradicted by the apostle. Their idolatry is deliberate.

The wicked know the truth full well. They know it beyond denial. But they suppress it. And the way they suppress it is by changing God’s glory into a creaturely image and thus changing the truth into a lie. Note here the all-important word “change." They deliberately and consciously, with malice aforethought, willfully and in rebellion against God, change His glory into a creature, and that creature they worship. They profess to be wise, but they are fools. They seek in every way possible to destroy God and to suppress that which they know about Him. This is their dreadful sin and the depths of their depravity.

8) Hence the wrath of God is upon them. And that wrath of God upon them is especially revealed, according to the apostle, in giving them over to the terrible sin of homosexuality. We ought to note that. God punishes sin with sin. And He, in His holy wrath, punishes idolatry with homosexuality. “Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves” (v. 24). And again, “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature...” (vv. 26ff.).

One need only read the rest of the chapter to see what are the dreadful consequences of man’s suppression of the truth of God.

But in this passage there is no mention at all either of any general revelation or of any grace of God revealed in so-called general revelation. It is clear to anyone who reads the passage, that there is, therefore, no restraint of sin in this general revelation at all.

Romans 2:14, 15

The same general truth is taught in Romans 2:14, 15, although here from the viewpoint of the law of God.

We will not enter into this passage in any kind of detail. We wish to point out only a few things.

1) It must be remembered that this passage is written particularly in the context of the Roman Empire. Pagan Rome had developed a vast system of jurisprudence, a system which has even become the basis for Western legal theory. The question which the apostle is answering is: How was this possible? After all, the Romans had not the gospel of Jesus Christ. How could they develop such an intricate and elaborate system of law?

2) The apostle is not saying that these same Romans have not discovered and codified laws which reflect the law of God and which are important for the survival of society. Indeed this is the case. But it must also be remembered that this same Rome is the nation that gave itself over to every form of idolatry and was judged by God with every form of sexual vice including homosexuality. They, therefore, have not the law in the sense in which Israel had it, but they do the things contained in the law (v. 14).

3) This doing of the law does not mean that they kept the law of God perfectly or in any sense as a duty and obligation to be obedient to the God of heaven and earth. They do the things contained in the law because they are able to see that this is for their own advantage. Laws against murder and theft are codified and enforced. To do anything different would result in the dissolution of society and the fall of the empire. It does not take grace, not even common grace, to understand this. Anyone can see that.

4) How do they know the law? The apostle says that they “show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (v. 15). Notice, the apostle does not say that they show the law written in their hearts. This is true only of those who are saved by grace. But they show the work of the law written in their hearts. That is, God testifies through their conscience the work of the law. He testifies of what is in keeping with His law and what is contrary to His law. Every heathen knows this. It is implied in the fact that all men not only know that God is God, but they know too that God alone must be served.

5) This also takes place through God’s manifestation of Himself in creation. After all, when God created all things, He imbedded in the creation His own law. It is woven into the warp and woof of creation. It is part of man’s obligation which he knows by virtue of his own creatureliness and the created character of the creation within which he lives. He cannot escape knowing that the creation clearly shows that murder and theft, adultery and fornication are wrong. Creation itself shows that God alone must be served. And God so impresses this truth upon man’s conscience that they accuse or else excuse one another.

6) But again, there is no mention of grace, even and especially a grace shown through some gracious revelation of God. It is, in fact, the way in which the wicked become accountable in the judgment.

The Confessions

There are two articles in the Reformed confessions which deal with these matters we have been discussing. They too have been appealed to repeatedly in support of common grace and the restraint of sin through what is called general revelation.

The first is in Canons III/IV, 4:

There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.17

The second article is Belgic Confession, Article 14. We quote here the pertinent part.

And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God, and only retained a few remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse.

In support of the doctrine of the restraint of sin, appeal is made to the fact that the Belgic Confession speaks of man retaining a few remains of the excellent gifts which he lost because of the fall; and that the Canons speak of glimmerings of natural light which fallen man retains, by which he has some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil. And further, that, because of these glimmerings, he discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.

It is clear that both articles refer directly to the passages in Romans 1 and 2 which we discussed above. Both use the same language in some respects, and both creeds specifically refer to the fact that God continues to give fallen man some remnants of His excellent gifts that he might be without excuse.

Both articles speak of natural light, the Belgic by referring to remnants of excellent gifts, and the Canons by referring to glimmerings of natural light.

What are these remnants of natural light? Very obviously, the creeds refer to the fact that, even after man fell, man did not become a beast or animal—as Dr. Abraham Kuyper (and others) insist would have happened if it had not been for common grace. He remained a man. His natural light (in distinction from spiritual light) are those gifts which guarantee that he is still a man. Man is still rational because he retains a mind. He is still moral because he retains a will. He is still a creature with a soul, which soul shall endure beyond death so that he may stand in the judgment and be justly and righteously punished for his sin.

These gifts of natural light are, according to the creeds, the means by which he still has some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil. It is because he has natural light in a measure that he is still able to have some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. If he lacked these he would no longer be man.

But they are, after all, only glimmerings and remnants. Even as far as the natural light which man continues to possess is concerned, man has only bits and pieces. That is, the fall was so devastating in its consequences that even man’s natural powers of mind and will which he retained are remnants and glimmerings. They are the few scraps a seamstress has left over when her dress is completed, essentially worthless. They are the sputterings of a candle in comparison with the light of the sun. Man’s natural powers of soul were far greater before he fell than after God visited him with death.

But these glimmerings and remnants are enough to hold man accountable before God. They are enough to give man some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil. And so man still is responsible for what he does. If he had not these glimmerings, he would not be accountable before God for his idolatry and sin. But now he is.

But if you should inquire whether this is grace, the creeds make no mention at all of such grace. And if you should think that these glimmerings restrain sin, the creeds are quite emphatic that they do not. Man’s regard for virtue and good order in society and his efforts to maintain an orderly external deportment are for his own selfish benefit, for he is able to see that society would sink into chaos, and life would be impossible, if God’s law were not externally observed.

The Canons are quite insistent on making the point. All these glimmerings are not only insufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, but man is even incapable of using this natural light aright in things natural and civil. He suppresses the truth, renders it holy polluted, holds it in unrighteousness, and corrupts it in every way possible. And so he becomes inexcusable before God.

The Image of God in Man

We turn now to our final question concerning the image of God in man.

It is not our purpose to enter into this question in detail, for it rightly belongs to a study which would include the history of the doctrine over the centuries and a careful exegetical and theological analysis of what has proved to be a very difficult subject. We are only concerned about the question insofar as it touches on the subject of common grace and the restraint of sin.

It is our judgment that much of the discussion concerning the image of God has gone astray because of the failure of theologians to define the image according to biblical principles. Many theologians have included in the image many elements which Scripture itself does not include.

Louis Berkhof, who may be considered representative of many in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, includes many elements in the image which do not properly belong there. After correctly emphasizing that the image of God includes true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, he goes on to say:

But the image of God is not to be restricted to the original knowledge, righteousness, and holiness which was lost by sin, but also includes elements which belong to the natural constitution of man.18

In this list are included intellectual power, natural affections, moral freedom, spirituality, and immortality.19

It is our judgment that this is a mistake.

The key passages which define the image of God in man clearly limit this image to true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:22-24: “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts: and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” And in Colossians 3:10 he writes: “And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.”

Although these passages refer to the renewal of the elect in Jesus Christ, they specifically mention that these elements are elements of the image. The elect are renewed after all. They are given what was lost in Adam. Restored in them is what Adam possessed, but lost because of his sin. And the elements that are mentioned are limited to knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.

It is true that man continues to be a rational and moral being. It is also true that only a rational and moral being is able to bear the image of God. No tree or hippopotamus, no dog or thistle is able to be an image-bearer. Only man can bear that image. And only he can bear it because he is created with a soul, i.e., with a mind, a will, and affections. But to include that which belongs to the nature and essence of man as man in the image is to broaden the image beyond that which Scripture sanctions.

It is such a broadening of the image which has led to all kinds of trouble. Because man retains his rationality and morality, be they only remnants, man retains the image of God in a measure. And if he retains the image of God, he remains like God in certain respects even though fallen. And it is easy to make the jump from saying that man even in his fallen state, because he is still image-bearer, is still under grace, is less than as bad as he can be, and is capable of doing good things. And so the retention of the image becomes the avenue to introduce common grace as a restraining inner influence in fallen and unregenerate man.

But if the image is truly lost in the fall in its entirety, as Scripture teaches, then man is truly depraved, incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. Then he is not the object of grace, but of wrath. And grace comes to him only through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Then we can understand what the Belgic Confession states in Article 14:

We believe that God created man out of the dust of the earth, and made and formed him after his own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will, agreeable to the will of God. But being in honor, he understood it not, neither knew his excellency, but willfully subjected himself to sin, and consequently to death, and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death.

This same truth is echoed by the Canons in III/IV, 1:

Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright; all his affections pure; and the whole man was holy; but revolting from God by the instigation of the devil, and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment, became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.

Two passages of Scripture are quoted to prove that man retained the image after the fall. The first is Genesis 9:6: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” The second is James 3:9: “Therewith (that is, with the tongue) bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.”

Murderers are to be killed because they shed the blood of a man who was created after God’s image, and violations of the ninth commandment are such dreadful sins (especially when hypocritically a man blesses God and curses his fellow man) because man was made in God's image.

These texts are referred to as proof that man is still image-bearer.

However, a careful scrutiny of the texts and the contexts in which they are found will clearly show that the reference is to the original creation of man by God. Man is unique in God’s world. He alone among all creatures was originally created as image-bearer of God. That unique character of man remains even though he fell. The image does not remain in the sense that man still bears the image, but it remains in the sense that he is still unique and still capable of being an image-bearer because he is rational and moral.

There is an important point here. Even fallen man is image-bearer because of his rationality and morality. But fallen man has become image-bearer of Satan, for the wicked are of their father the devil whose works they do. But the elect are destined in God’s grace to be renewed after the image of Christ. And as renewed in the image of Christ, they are renewed to bear the image of their Father in heaven with whom they will dwell in glory.


The whole concept of general revelation ought to be abandoned by Reformed theology. While God manifests Himself to all, He does so that He may be vindicated in His justice and righteousness when the wicked are punished. To the elect, God reveals Himself in Christ. This is grace. Other than that great grace of God in Christ, there is no grace.

And so we can find no proof of an inner restraint of sin in this whole concept, and Reformed theology finds such notions contrary to all that belongs to Scripture.

We must still treat Article 2 of the Belgic Confession which speaks of the fact that God may be known “by the creation, preservation and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his power and divinity....” But this must wait for another article.


1. Herman Bavinck, “Common Grace,” tr. by R. C. Van Leeuwen, Calvin Theological Journal, XXIV, pp. 60 ff. (April, 1989).

2. Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), p. 38.

3. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953), pp. 440, 441.

4. A. A. Hodge, Outline of Theology (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1878), pp. 449, 450.

5. William Masselink, General Revelation and Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953), p. 69.

6. Ibid., p. 187.

7. Donald Macleod, Behold Your God (Christian Focus Publications, 1990), p. 121.

8. We leave out of consideration here the idea that history belongs to general revelation. While in a certain sense this can be said to be true, it is not immediately relevant to our discussion.

9. This same truth is found in Luke 10:21, 22. That that revelation is particular and not general is evident from many other passages. See, e.g., Matthew 16:17, I Corinthians 2:10, Ephesians 3:5, Philippians 3:15, I Peter 1:12, Galatians 1:16. In fact, whether the verb form or the noun form is used, when “revelation” refers to God’s work of making Himself known, the term is always used particularly, i.e., as a work of God for the elect. The reader can consult any Concordance on the matter.

10. The interested reader may pursue this matter further by studying such texts as Ephesians 3:3, Romans 16:25, Galatians 1:12, Revelation 1:1, etc.

11. In our previous article we pointed out that we had no objection to the idea of the restraint of sin as long as that restraint was outward by means of God’s providence.

12. This same idea, now in the case of the unbelieving Jews, is expressed in Jesus’ words from Matthew 13, which we quoted earlier: “Seeing they see....” There is, therefore, a certain formal knowledge of the truth which the wicked suppress. But revelation always gives saving knowledge.

13. We are not interested in a controversy over the use of terminology for its own sake. But it is my conviction that to use the biblical concept of revelation to describe God’s manifestation to the heathen is a mistake which has had serious consequences in the history of Reformed thought. As we mentioned earlier, just because revelation, when it refers to God’s work of making Himself known in Christ, is part and parcel of grace, the conclusion has been made that “general revelation” is also somehow grace.

14. While our present interest is not in the theory of evolution, a theory which denies God’s creative work, it is clear, also from this passage, that to deny creation in the interests of evolutionary theory is to deny that God makes Himself known to the wicked through creation. The whole truth of Romans 1:18ff. rests upon a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3.

15. This important truth implies the truth of original guilt. Man is responsible, not only for his own sin, but also for the sin which Adam committed in Paradise in eating of the forbidden tree. All men are guilty for this sin, and man’s total depravity is his fault, for which he is accountable before God. This is the clear teaching of Romans 5:12-14, and this truth is maintained by all the historic Reformed and Presbyterian creeds. It is, as a matter of fact, the great dividing point between the Reformed faith and all forms of Arminianism. Scripture is clear on the doctrine that total depravity is the just punishment of God upon the human race which is guilty in Adam for Adam’s sin. See a clear statement of this truth in Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 4.

16. The Greek here can be better translated “rather than.”

17. We have quoted the entire article. This was not done by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 when it adopted the idea of the restraint of sin through the operation of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all men. Mysteriously and inexcusably, the quotation was ended just before the words, “But so far is this light of nature....”

18. Berkhof, op. cit., p. 204.

19. Ibid., pp. 204, 205.

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